BROSSARD, Que. — The Montreal Canadiens are thinking big picture, and they have every reason to be.
They’ve been in a playoff spot for all but a handful of days this season, they’ve even managed to climb into a race with the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for those premium positions behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Atlantic Division, and they’ve found a way to keep a competitive Buffalo Sabres team at bay in recent weeks.
The Canadiens also know that their place in the standings — currently in the first wild-card position, tied in points with the Bruins, just one point back of the Leafs and three ahead of the Sabres — hasn’t been a function of luck, or superior goaltending, or a scorching power play (theirs has operated at 12.9 per cent and ranks dead-last in the NHL), or any combination of those elements that would lead anyone to suggest their success has been a mirage. Montreal has been a dominant team at five-on-five — owning the fourth-best possession numbers and scoring the sixth-most goals in the NHL. They’ve had balanced scoring (seven of their players are currently on pace to score 40 points or more), and their penalty kill has steadily improved since the middle of December and been exceptional in eight January contests.
But there’s no time for them to relent. Every team around them in the playoff picture has games in hand, so the Canadiens are approaching their next three contests — against the Blue Jackets in Columbus Friday, home to the Philadelphia Flyers Saturday and to the Arizona Coyotes next Wednesday — as must-wins.
“We were looking at the last six games before the break and obviously had a good start,” said Canadiens top centre Phillip Danault in reference to consecutive wins over the Colorado Avalanche, the Bruins and the Florida Panthers. “The more points we get before the break, the better it is for our position with teams catching up in games (played). The playoff picture is becoming clearer, and the race in our division is so tight. These are three of the biggest games of the year coming up for us.”
The first one poses the biggest challenge. The Blue Jackets, who have won 11 of their last 15 games, may not be the biggest nor the heaviest team in the league, but they play like they are. They’re the exact type of team that’s given the smallest and lightest team in the NHL trouble this season.
Sure, the Canadiens split their four games with the Bruins this year, but they were pushed around by the Minnesota Wild on two occasions, they were devoured by the mighty San Jose Sharks, they dropped all three of their games against the grinding Sabres, and they dropped a game in punishing fashion to the St. Louis Blues last week.
Countering that shut-down, heavy-hitting, push-you-to-the-margins style is something the team is going to have to figure out if it wants to remain in the playoff picture and potentially do some damage if it makes it in.
The Canadiens know it.
“They play hard,” captain Shea Weber said of the Blue Jackets. “It’s going to be a good game. We’re going to have to obviously use our speed, but we’re going to have to win those puck battles. Whether that’s getting inside and just using our sticks because we’re not that big of a team or it’s just outworking them, we’ve got to win those battles and then use our speed when we can. Get in off the rush, get inside their house, so we can get those good quality chances against their goalie.”
The Canadiens are also going to have to get back to the recipe that’s earned them the bulk of their points in the standings instead of the one they used to win their last two games against the Bruins and Panthers.
“The way we played our last two games, giving up I think 96 shots? We shouldn’t stand there and accept that,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “We should be happy we won the games, and rightfully so … It’s nice to see your goaltender steal some games for you because every team needs that, but I’d like our team not to have to rely on them to do that too often. We need to be a little bit better. I think defensively our commitment hasn’t been as good as it needs to be, and that’s where we need to improve.”
Despite having to play Columbus and Philadelphia back to back, the Canadiens are in a good position to play tighter defensively and put in all-out efforts in all three of their games before all-star weekend. They’re coming off two days of rest to face Columbus, the game against the Flyers will be the first of an eight-game home stand, and the one against the Coyotes will be their only game to play over a 13-day stretch that runs from this Sunday to Saturday, Feb. 2.
“This is a great opportunity for us,” said Danault.
And in the big picture?
“At the end of the day, our main goal is to make the playoffs,” said Julien. “The other part is to try and continue to get better, build some … continue to be consistent and making sure we don’t get too high or too low. You hear a lot of times say that, and I don’t want our guys thinking that every game’s a Game 7 because it’ll wear ‘em out down the road. I just want them to get consistent, and hopefully consistency will get us where we want to go.”